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Technology San Jose airport eyes expansion, but climate concerns loom

16:10  14 january  2020
16:10  14 january  2020 Source:   sfchronicle.com

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As Silicon Valley booms, demand for air travel into and out of San Jose is surging. On Tuesday, the City Council will vote to take another step toward enacting a plan that could add six gates, build up to 11,000 more parking spots and rearrange taxiways to be more efficient at Mineta San Jose International Airport to meet the expected growth.

It’s a huge undertaking. And it directly conflicts with another goal of the city and state: slashing climate pollution.

The expansion plan creates a “significant unavoidable impact” on the environment that could result in carbon emissions equivalent to putting more than 28,000 cars on the road, according to the plan, which only counts on-the-ground pollution because airplane flights — which account for a huge chunk of emissions for most people who fly — are federally regulated.

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City officials say if the airport doesn’t plan effectively for expansion, more planes would idle, needlessly burning fuel while waiting for a gate, and more cars would travel to other airports. San Francisco International Airport recently added a hotel and is rebuilding Terminal 1 with more gates and expanding security checkpoints, though it faces physical constraints and foggy weather that cause frequent delays.

“If we don’t accommodate air traffic in San Jose, people don’t suddenly stop flying,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said. He added: “People are clamoring to have better service closer to where they live and work so they don’t have to sit on freeways. That doesn’t seem unreasonable.”

On Monday, Liccardo plans to introduce a policy that would reduce fees for airlines that use cleaner fuels or electric and hybrid ground vehicles. The proposal will be considered at Tuesday’s council meeting alongside the expansion plan.

“The planes and the people are coming whether we want them or not, the question is how do we want to best accommodate them,” airport spokesman Scott Wintner said. “As long as that demand exists, there’s going to be some impacts of that. All we can do and what we do, we take seriously our responsibility to do it the most environmentally responsible way we can.”

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Environmentalists say expansion of the airport would harm the climate and increase emissions that impair health.

The new plan will allow for a “huge carbon impact and continue to incentivize people to drive to the airport,” said Carlo De La Cruz, outdoor air quality and transportation senior campaign representative with environmental advocacy group Sierra Club. “Nothing new or imaginative about how to imagine a sustainable airport of the future.”

The council is expected to move the expansion plan forward in Tuesday’s vote, though further review is needed and a final vote would come in March. In addition, each construction project would need further approvals. The airport has already started building one preapproved parking garage.

San Jose had the highest passenger growth among the nation’s top 50 airports in the past four years, according to the airport’s analysis. It predicted passenger numbers will rise by 57% to 22.5 million by 2037. Wintner attributed the boom to a strong economy and the high cost of living that has pushed people south from San Francisco. San Jose has also become a huge draw for Google, which has plans for an enormous office project that could make it the city's biggest employer.

Existing facilities at the airport could accommodate growth, Wintner said, but it would mean more planes waiting on the tarmac, longer lines for the bathrooms and congestion at gates. Besides the six added gates — the airport currently has 36 — the plan could include retail, restaurants and restrooms, a long-term parking garage with up to 6,000 spaces, a short-term one with up to 5,000 and a hotel.

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Wintner said parking is a dire need: One weekend in October, not during a busy travel season, no spots were available. He understands that environmentalists think governments should be more proactive against parking, with a vision of a car-free world one day. But until then, the airport exists to serve its customers, and people want parking, he said.

A minimum of 10% of parking spaces will be for electric vehicles. San Jose City Councilwoman Dev Davis said garages could be converted into office space if demand for parking subsides.

There are few public transit options to the airport. In December, the Valley Transportation Authority opened a new bus line from Milpitas Transit Center to the airport. A BART extension to Berryessa that would bring passengers closer may open this year. The final leg to a station near the airport, connected by a planned people-mover line, will take another decade, VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress said.

Currently, a majority of the airport’s pollution — which, again, does not count the enormous emissions from airplanes — comes from vehicles. The shuttle buses belonging to the airport are electric. Henry Hilken, director of planning with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said although there were “good mitigation measures” in the airport expansion plan, “there’s always more that can be done to incentive passengers to get out of their cars.”

Hilken said higher emissions from the airport would require deeper cuts in other sectors in order to meet California’s goal of reducing emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. The expansion project will raise Bay Area emissions 0.15% over 2015 levels, the Air District said.

The project will also increase fine particulate pollution, which can get pulled deep into lungs and cause harm. The Air District said this type of pollution kills thousands in the Bay Area every year. The airport’s environmental review says the project’s pollution could in a worst-case scenario kill four more people a year, though that is a minuscule fraction of deaths from similar causes already.

Environmentalists say they aren’t anti-growth, but they want to see it done smartly, sustainably and safely.

“We have to meet this customer demand anyways, (and) the way we go about it is to coordinate with local transit authorities and plan for future long-term investments,” said De La Cruz, who wants a greater share of electric vehicle charging and more public transit at the airport. “I agree San Jose can’t move the needle on its own.”

Greg Nudd, the air district’s deputy air pollution control officer for policy, said it comes down to changing a culture of flying: “If we’re going to meet our climate goals, people need to fly less and drive less.”

Mallory Moench is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mallory.moench@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @mallorymoench

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